Five thoughts on Novak Djokovic’s victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros.
Does Djokovic play his best tennis when he has a gun to his head? Has anyone ever played as fearlessly when facing match points as Djokovic? You may recall the time that Djokovic played a ‘blind forehand’ when match point down against Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the 2010 US Open, shutting his eyes, taking a big swing and smacking a winner. Djokovic kept his eyes open on Court Philippe Chatrier, but he was still throwing his racket at the ball. Four times, Djokovic’s attempt at the Nole Slam – he is hoping to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four majors at the same time – was just a point away from failure. Djokovic wasn’t timid. Indeed, you could say that Djokovic was bolder when saving match points than in the rest of the quarter-final. Djokovic saved two match points at 4-5 in the fourth set, a couple more at 5-6, and then came back from 2-4 down in the tiebreak.
The temptation is often there, at those moments, to take some pace off the ball and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. Playing safe isn’t his style. It was by playing aggressive tennis that he kept himself in the tournament, and after that the fifth set was almost uncompetitive.
That is now six match points that Djokovic has saved on this undefeated run at the slams. He also staved off a couple in the semi-finals of last year’s US Open, against Federer. Remember those days when people wondered whether Djokovic lacked the strength of will to do his talent justice?
No one should accuse Tsonga of choking. You half wondered, as Tsonga sat there at the end under a towel, whether the crowd would boo him. That would have been cruel. Tsonga came so close to the most significant victory of his life – beating the world No 1 in Paris. And he would have achieved it by playing brilliant tennis, by flaying the ball, by being aggressive. This match was about as far as you get from a game of pat-ball. Even in defeat, Tsonga surely did enough to end suggestions that no Frenchman of this generation is capable of playing his best tennis at Roland Garros, in front of the sport’s most demanding audience. When Tsonga said before the tournament that no French player had a chance, he was criticised by Yannick Noah, the champion in 1983 and France’s last winner, of not even daring to dream. Tsonga dreamt, he played his shots, came close. That he fell away in the fifth set, winning just a game, that was due to the circumstances of the match, not because he felt inhibited by being in Paris.
It takes a lot to overshadow the fact that Federer needed to come from two sets down to beat Juan Martin Del Potro. But Djokovic and Tsonga managed it. Still, you have to wonder what would have happened if Del Potro’s knee had not started to give him so many problems. It was the first time that Del Potro had gone two sets up at a grand slam and lost.
So all three of the attempts at history are still on the table. Federer could still win a record 17th slam. Rafael Nadal could still win a record seventh French Open title. Djokovic could still become the first man for 43 years to hold all majors at the same. A round earlier, Djokovic came from two sets down to beat Italy’s Andreas Seppi. It is when Djokovic has been in danger that he has played his best tennis.